1979 – 2015 – the story of Malaysia’s thorium pollution at Bukit Merah

The Star has discovered that 80,000 200-litre drums containing radioactive waste are currently being kept at the dump located in the Kledang Range behind Papan town. The site is about 3km from Bukit Merah and Papan and about 15km from Ipoh. And the waste is thorium hydroxide, not amang.

Chronology of events in the Bukit Merah Asian Rare Earth developmenthttp://www.consumer.org.my/index.php/health/454-chronology-of-events-in-the-bukit-merah-asian-rare-earth-developments
 Eight men — a welder, a shoemaker, a general worker, a pensioner, a barber, a tractor driver, a crane-operator and a cancer victim who was to die shortly — sued Asian Rare Earth in 1985 on behalf of themselves and 10,000 other residents of Bukit Merah and the environs in Perak. They wanted to shut down this rare earth plant in their village near Ipoh because its radioactive waste was endangering their lives.

When the Mitsubishi joint venture plant opened over 1982, the villagers soon began complaining of the factory’s stinging smoke and bad smell which made them choke and cry. Worse was to come. Their health began failing, indicated not only by frequent bouts of coughs and colds, but a sharp rise in the incidence of leukaemia, infant deaths, congenital disease and lead poisoning.

For the first time in Malaysian legal history, an entire community has risen to act over an environmental issue, to protect their health and environment from radioactive pollution.

Below is the chronology of what happened when a radioactive rare earth plant was set up in Bukit Merah. Today, about 30 years later, the Government is allowing a new rare earth plant to be set up by Lynas in Gebeng, Kuantan. This new project should be scrapped if the Malaysian Government puts the health of Malaysians before profits.

1979  November: The Asian Rare Earth Sdn Bhd (ARE) is incorporated to extract yttrium (a rare earth) from monazite. The major shareholders are the following: Mitsubishi Chemical Industries Ltd (35%), Beh Minerals (35%), Lembaga Urusan dan Tabung Haji or the state-owned Pilgrims’ Management Fund Board (20%) and other bumiputra businessmen (10%). ARE seeks the advice of the Tun Ismail Research Centre (Puspati) of the Science, Technology and Environment Ministry about radioactive waste produced by processing monazite. It is decided that the waste, the property of the Perak State Government, will be kept in view of its potential as a source of nuclear energy.

1982  June : Residents of Parit in Perak learn that a nine-acre site six kilometres away has been chosen by the government as a storage dump for ARE’s radioactive waste.

30 June : Following strong protest by the residents’ committee and other political and social organisations, the plan is scrapped by the government which begins to look for another site to locate the dump.

11 July : ARE factory begins operations at 7.2 km Jalan Lahat in Bukit Merah New Village.

1983  November : Residents of Papan (about 16 kilometres from Ipoh) find out that ARE is building trenches of a waste dump near their town to store radioactive waste. The site had been picked by the government.


24 May : About 6,700 residents of Papan and nearby towns sign a protest letter and send it to the Prime Minister, Perak Menteri Besar, the Minister of Health, the Minister of Science, Technology and Environment.

31 May : About 200 residents from Papan protest against the proposed waste dump. They block the road leading to the site.

5 June : The Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad says the government has taken every precaution to ensure safety and that construction of the radioactive dump in Papan will go ahead.

18 June : About 300 Papan residents demonstrate for the second time against the proposed location of the dump.

28 June : The Minister of Science, Technology and Environment, Datuk Amar Stephen Yong, states that the Papan dump is safe because it is being built according to stringent standards. He challenges critics to prove that the dump will be hazardous to health and the environment. In the meanwhile, ARE continues operating, dumping the thorium waste into an open field and pond next to the factory.

1 July : About 3,000 people, including women and children, hold a peaceful demonstration to protest against the Papan dump.

4 July : About 2,000 people continue with the demonstration despite an order from the Perak Chief Police Officer to call it off.

18 July : A Bukit Merah Action Committee is formed, comprising residents from Bukit Merah, Lahat, Menglembu and Taman Badri Shah to support the Papan residents. Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) sends a memorandum to the Prime Minister stating that high levels of radiation exist at the open field and pond next to the ARE factory in Bukit Merah. One reading taken by SAM officials in a recent visit was 43,800 millirems/year, 88 times higher than the maximum level permitted by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) for the public.

29 August : Michael O’Riordan from the British National Radiological Protection Board is invited by the government to inspect the dump site in Papan.

19 September : A three-man team from the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visit the Papan site at the invitation of the Malaysian government. They declare the trenches there as unsafe………….


11 July : The people of Bukit Merah win their suit against ARE. The factory is ordered by the Ipoh High Court to shut down within 14 days. ARE announces that it will appeal to the Supreme Court.

23 July : ARE files an appeal at the Supreme Court against the Ipoh High Court order to cease operations. PARC chairman Hew Yoon Tat and Lau Fong Fatt, one of the plaintiffs in the suit against ARE, meet top management personnel of Mitsubishi Chemical in Japan. They are told that ARE filed the appeal without the corporation’s consent.

23 December 1993: The Supreme Court overturned the High Court decision on 2 grounds. The Court was of the opinion that ARE’s experts were more believable in terms of the results of the tests conducted by them showing that radiation was within permissible levels. Secondly, the Supreme Court said that the residents should have gone back to the AELB to ask that it revoke ARE’s licence, because AELB has the power to do so under the Atomic Energy Licensing Act. ……Despite the success of ARE in their appeal, the company later stopped operations and began cleaning up, due to public pressure both nationally and internationally.


19 January 1994: ARE announced the closure of its Bukit Merah plant………


A decommissioning and decontamination exercise started in 2003 and 2005.


13 June 2010 : Former premier Dr. Mahathir Mohamad disagreed with the proposal for Malaysia to build nuclear power plants and reported that “a small amount” of nuclear waste was buried in Perak.

Mahathir said, “In Malaysia, we do have nuclear waste which perhaps the public is not aware of. We had to bury the amang (tin tailings) in Perak, deep in the ground. But the place is still not safe. Almost one square mile of that area is dangerous.”

Following his remarks, The Star has discovered that 80,000 200-litre drums containing radioactive waste are currently being kept at the dump located in the Kledang Range behind Papan town. The site is about 3km from Bukit Merah and Papan and about 15km from Ipoh. And the waste is thorium hydroxide, not amang.

In fact, it is only January this year that work finally began on the building of a proper underground storage facility called an engineered cell (EC).

The ongoing cleanup of the 30-year-old problem is estimated to cost a massive RM300 million.

Malaysian thorium polluted site quietly cleaned up by Mitsubishi

Mitsubishi Quietly Cleans Up Its Former Refinery  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/09/business/energy-environment/09rareside.html?_r=0 By  : March 8, 2011 BUKIT MERAH, Malaysia — Hidden here in the jungles of north-central Malaysia, in a broad valley fringed with cave-pocked limestone cliffs topped with acacia and durian trees, lies the site of the largest radiation cleanup yet in the rare earth industry.

Residents blamed a rare earth refinery for birth defects and eight leukemia cases within five years in a community of 11,000 — after many years with no leukemia cases. Seven of the leukemia victims have since died.

The Bukit Merah case is little known even elsewhere in Malaysia, and virtually unknown in the West, because Mitsubishi Chemical quietly agreed to fix the problem even without a legal order to do so. Local protesters had contacted Japanese environmentalists and politicians, who in turn helped persuade the image-conscious company to close the refinery in 1992 and subsequently spend an estimated $100 million to clean up the site.

Image-burnishing was important because the company is part of the Mitsubishi Group of Companies, which has long made Malaysia the cornerstone of its southeast Asian operations. The group has dominant positions in manufacturing a range of products, including air-conditioners and cars.

Mitsubishi Chemical also reached an out-of-court settlement with residents here by agreeing to donate $164,000 to the community’s schools, while denying any responsibility for illnesses.

Osamu Shimizu, the director of Asian Rare Earth, the Mitsubishi Chemical subsidiary that owns the mine, declined to discuss details of the factory’s operation before it closed in 1992. But he said that the company was committed to a safe and complete cleanup.

Workers in protective gear have already removed 11,000 truckloads of radioactively contaminated material, hauling away every trace of the old refinery and even tainted soil from beneath it, down to the bedrock as much as 25 feet below, said Anthony Goh, the consultant overseeing the project for one of Mitsubishi’s contractors, GeoSyntec, an Atlanta-based firm.

To dispose of the radioactive material, engineers have cut the top off a hill three miles away in a forest reserve, buried the material inside the hill’s core and then entombed it under more than 20 feet of clay and granite.

The toughest part of the Bukit Merah cleanup will come this summer, when robots and workers in protective gear are to start trying to move more than 80,000 steel barrels of radioactive waste from a concrete bunker. They will mix it with cement and gypsum, and then permanently store it in the hilltop repository.

The refinery processed slag from old tin mines — material rich in rare earth ore. The company and Malaysian regulators said that it was statistically possible that the leukemia cases were a coincidence because tin mining towns tend to have above-average levels of background radiation. But an academic study of another tin mining town suggested that communities of Bukit Merah’s size should only have one leukemia case every 30 years.

Lai Kwan, aged 69, still recalls how she cheerfully moved in the 1980s from a sawmill job to a better-paying position in the refinery that involved proximity to radioactive materials. She remembers that while pregnant, she was told to take an unpaid day off only on days when the factory bosses said that a particularly dangerous consignment of ore had arrived.

She has spent the last 29 years washing, dressing, feeding and otherwise taking care of her son from that pregnancy, who was born with severe mental and physical disabilities. She and other local residents blame the refinery for the problems, although birth defects can have many causes.

“We saw it as a chance to get better pay,” Ms. Lai recalled. “We didn’t know what they were producing.”

Using thorium does not eliminate the problem of long-lived radioactive waste

Using thorium does not eliminate the problem of long-lived radioactive waste. Fission of
thorium creates long-lived fission products including technetium-99 (half-life of over 200,000
years). Without reprocessing, thorium-232 is itself extremely long-lived (half-life of 14 billion
years) and its decay products will build up over time in irradiated fuel. Therefore, in addition to
all the fission products produced, the irradiated fuel is also quite radiotoxic. Wastes that pose
long-term hazards are also produced at the “front end” of the thorium fuel cycle during mining,
just as with the uranium fuel cycle.

West Chicago needs $millions to carry out radioactive thorium cleanup

Lawmakers press for more thorium cleanup money Daily Herald, Robert Sanchez 21 Oct 14 With money running out to pay for removal of radioactive thorium waste at a former factory site in West Chicago, local officials are appealing to the federal government for help….So far, their request for as much as $40 million in federal funding for the cleanup hasn’t been granted……..

n July, the U.S. House approved legislation that provides $20 million to reimburse work at cleanup projects nationwide. Nearly $6 million of that money could be used in West Chicago.

But the Senate hasn’t approved the measure. It’s proposing legislation that would cut the funding amount to $10 million……

While the roughly 60-acre property is vacant, it used to house a factory that produced radioactive rare earth elements such as thorium for federal atomic energy and defense programs, dating to World War II.

The process created a sandlike material that the factory made available to residents for landscaping and building projects. In addition, a storm sewer from the factory site carried thorium to nearby Kress Creek and the West Branch of the DuPage River.

Then it was determined that thorium causes an increase in cancer.

Kerr-McGee, which bought the factory in 1967, started a massive cleanup to remove thorium from the waterways, hundreds of individual residential properties, Reed-Keppler Park and a wastewater treatment plant.

But after officials spent decades and roughly $1.2 billion cleaning area sites polluted with radioactive thorium waste, the environmental response trust overseeing the work doesn’t have enough money to finish the cleanup of the factory property. Two areas within the fenced site remain contaminated.,…….http://www.dailyherald.com/article/20141021/news/141029730/

Thorium reactors have very little relevance to strategies for dealing with nuclear waste

Thorium nuclear reactors are unlikely to take over from uranium ones, and are considered irrelevant to strategies to deal with nuclear wastes ,The Engineer finds 27 October 2014 “……..The Cambridge research will explore the pros and cons of different fuel combinations, including thorium, plutonium and the main material the designers are focusing on, uranium silicide, which is more power dense and so more cost-effective than the uranium oxide currently used.

Parks said that because the I2S is an evolution of existing light water reactor designs it could be brought to market more quickly than other reactors proposed for use with a thorium fuel-cycle, suggesting it could even be deployed within a decade and be installed in old nuclear power stations such as Sizewell B.

However, he also admitted that with current uranium stocks there was no major economic necessity to move to a thorium fuel-cycle at the moment and that such a transition would only happen if the government committed to thorium through a long-term flagship research project.

A paper published by the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory in March 2012 found that ‘the thorium fuel cycle at best has only limited relevance to the UK as an alternative plutonium disposition strategy and as a possible strategic option in the very long term,’ and recommended ‘a low level of engagement in thorium fuel cycle R&D’.”

Toxic radioactive fission products from Thorium nuclear reactors

the fission products from a Thorium reactor are a worry, Technetium-99 has a half life of 220,000 years, uranium-232 produces thallium-208 (a nasty wee gamma emitter), Selenium-79 (another gamma emitter with a 327,000 year half-life), evenThorium-232 is a problem with its half life of 14 Billion years (and while the T-232 isn’t a major worry, all the time during this 14 Billion years it will be decaying and producing stuff that is!).

Thorium Cycle questions and problems http://daryanenergyblog.wordpress.com/ca/part-8-msr-lftr/8-3-thorium-lftr/ Questions have also been raised by some nuclear scientists about the Thorium cycle, in particular the proposed one that the LFTR would use. I’m not a nuclear physicist so I’ll merely forward you on to the relevant paper here , and a rebuttal here . The crux of the argument seems to be the proliferation risk (I’ll come back to that one later), the fact that a number of its spend fuel outputs (such as Technetium-99) are “nasty stuff” with a long half life and the fact we’ll still need supplies of Uranium to get Thorium reactors going again whenever we have to turn it off (which will happen at least once a year or so during its annual maintenance shutdown). They also highlight a number of technical issues, which I discussed in the chapter on HTGR’s.

Certainly the fission products from a Thorium reactor are a worry, Technetium-99 has a half life of 220,000 years, uranium-232 produces thallium-208 (a nasty wee gamma emitter), Selenium-79 (another gamma emitter with a 327,000 year half-life), evenThorium-232 is a problem with its half life of 14 Billion years (and while the T-232 isn’t a major worry, all the time during this 14 Billion years it will be decaying and producing stuff that is!).

The UK based NNL (National Nuclear Laboratories) also pour cold water on the idea of Thorium fuelled reactors (see here ). While the report is low on detail (they seem to be saying “trust us we’re scientists who work with nuke stuff… and we smoke pipes!”) they do highlight the major time delays it would take to establish and get working a Thorium fuel cycle (10-15 years with existing reactors, 30 with more advanced options), point out that under present market conditions its unlikely to be economically viable and will (as the points above raise) offer only a modest reduction in nuclear wastes.

MIT recently undertook a study  of future nuclear fuel supplies. The Thorium cycle barely gets a mention, and even then its usually in relation to Fast Reactor programs (of which the US currently has none) and modifed LWR systems, rather than the MSR.

Obviously, once we exhaust the world’s U-235 stockpiles, LFTR’s and any other Thorium fuelled reactors will cease to function. Indeed long before then the spike in Uranium prices will have rendered MSR’s (and all other nuclear plants) uneconomically viable (of course there’s plenty who’d say that’s already the case!). The LFTR fans usually groan at this point and state that “all we need is a little plutonium”. Now while I’m quite sure that in the fantasy world which the LFTR fans inhabit Plutonium is available in any good hardware store but back in the real world, it’s a little harder to come by!  As with the HTGR’s using Thorium (if its possible) would certainly help stretch things out….a bit! But not by nearly as much as the supporters of Thorium reactors would have you believe.